When A Buddhist Goes Fishing

Photo by wife

The fish — when it comes out of the water — is beautiful. Its sides are iridescent blue and green, like sequins on a sari. Like the middle of a rainbow. The parau lays gasping on the gray bottom of the boat, blood lightly splotching out its gills. Dying takes an uncomfortable while. I keep looking back and it’s not dead. My daughter cries and says put it back in the ocean. Maybe she’s right, but A) this is her grandfather’s idea and B) this is something I want her to know.

It’s the night before poya, the full-moon holiday where Buddhists are supposed to try to be Buddhist for a day at least. The first precept is not killing, which is definitely what we’re doing to this fish here. Fishing, as a profession, is caste down in Sri Lanka (bad karma), but everybody eats the fish (good curry). I think keeping our distance from the killing is a bigger problem. That’s why I want my daughter to see.

The fish was beautiful and strong when it came in, but now it’s literally a fish out of water. Its body is still lithe and fluid, like water, but every second it fades into land-like rigidity.

My daughter keeps asking why we came here, to bother this creature and her, which is a good question. Fishing is my father-in-law’s thing, not mine. He keeps trying to get everybody else interested in his hobbies and they keep scolding him. If he brings home fresh lobster, he gets scolded cause they get loose in the night and wander around the kitchen, terrifying everybody. If he kills a goat in the garage to make biryani, nobody wants to eat it. If he raises country chickens, they complain that it has too many bones.

Even as a vague vegetarian, however, I respect the carnivorousness. He’s a meat-eater who looks what he eats in the eye, which I think is respectful. I think everyone else is fundamentally cowardly, the scavengers of the supermarket aisle. They want their meat without eyes, without heads, without blood, without the messiness and grossness of life. Certainly without the sacrifice of getting blood on themselves. Meat has become just another disembodied commodity, maybe personified by a cartoon or some text about how happy the animal was before it died. Put it next to your cornflakes and move on down the aisle.

It’s all lies, of course. The more pristine the packaging, the greater the sin. Killing something yourself might be murder, but industrial killing is positively genocidal. I won’t even get into the horrors of what we do to our fellow creatures made into commodities. The killing is ultimately a mercy. History will not absolve us for torturing our comrades so brutally.

The paradox is that the cleaner the kill looks to the end consumer, the more cruel it can be. For example, if you buy chicken at the ‘wet’ market in Nugegoda they can kill the fellow in front of you (if you want). This is considered gross and cruel, but it is what you see. Imagine what you’re not seeing at a factory farm? Imagine how that poor creature is living, if you can call it that. Judging the people that kill with their hands is largely a caste distinction, whereas the people that kill at genocidal levels through ‘industries’ are upstanding members of society. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s finally a blessing when these poor souls get put out of their misery.

That’s why I want my kids to see. I want them to know that fish doesn’t have fingers and doesn’t live in the freezer. That things don’t just appear on menus, that they’re not born breaded, that the animals my children eat were not always meat. That they were living like you and me. With our energy slaves and plastic packaging, we’re separated from this reality.

Better to sit in the kerosene fumes for two hours, waiting for one fish and watching it die in front of you. To see the blue and green neon of life appear in all its beauty from the water, and then fade to gray as it oxidizes in the sun. To cut yourself on the fishing line, to give blood for blood. To kill is bad, I know, but I think a greater sin is to torture and kill at a distance. Because the gods know, the sin is still being done.

The Buddha never quite accounted for killing-at-distance because it simply wasn’t happening at such fossil-fueled scale back then. Indeed, this it wasn’t even happening this way one generation ago. For most of human history, everyone was chasing country chickens around and slaughtering their own livestock, or seeing them killed in front of you at the butchers. The only way you could ‘refrigerate’ something was keeping it alive until dinner time. Eating was killing. This was obvious. Now it’s obscured.

Today’s generation (myself included) grows up never seeing the killing part, never even seeing blood. We think ourselves more civilized, but we’re just deeper in maara; delusion, the devil in disguise. The first precept is to abstain from killing, but I think scavenging upon great suffering is worse. Because we do it so mindlessly. To kill you have to do wrong, but you at least do it mindfully. That fish was trying to kill the bait and then the bait killed the fish. There’s at least some honor amongst thieves.

I’m not sure if my daughter gets any of these lessons, but they’re there, if she ever wants them. At the moment she’s just pissed off and screaming at everybody, which I suppose is the right reaction. She goes to cry in the room and her great-grandfather proudly brings the fish up to the window to show her again. She screams even more and tells him to get out.

The old man is more vegetarian than I am, but he wants to go off and get this thing cooked by himself. He’s 93, so that’s not happening. I take the fish myself — which is stiff as a board now — and walk down the beach to find some place that will cook it. The beach places are too fancy so I go inland. Someone takes the fish off my hands, grills it in obscene amounts of butter, and I bring it back to the hotel where everyone yells at me to go outside because it’ll smell. Then they come out to eat it happily, even picking the head clean. That’s how it goes. Everyone wants the meat but at a respectable distance. Respectable for the fish? No. Respectable for us.

I eat the fish myself. It’s quite good, as fresh as possible and prepared well. I’m a bad Buddhist and this killing is honestly the least of my sins (unless god is a fish, which is more likely than her looking like us). It’s certainly an experience seeing a creature go from colorful to carcass to curry in the matter of an hour. Seems a greater sin to let them go to waste. So I eat the fish and it’s bad and it’s good at the same time.

The next day, poya itself, I have another fishy experience. The men on the beach have pulled in their nets and are sorting out their meager catch. Crows and people gather round. There’s one big fish that the fishermen don’t want and they throw him aside. It seems the crows don’t want him either. He just lies there, dying for no purpose. A tourist stands idly above him and takes a photo.

My daughter says ‘Appa, put him back! It’s poya!’ She’s usually right about doing the right thing, but I’m usually too lazy. But this, this can be done. I pick up the fish, walk up to the ocean, and throw him as far as I can. I think I see him flex into the water and swim off. He’s had a hell of a day but it’s over for now. I wish him a blessed poya. See you next lifetime.